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Ryan Lochte, Olympians test the reality TV waters

Ryan Lochte says he'd like to be on "The Bachelor" or "Dancing With the Stars," and reality TV has proved an attractive option for Olympians.

August 22, 2012|By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times
  • Olympian Ryan Lochte with Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show.
Olympian Ryan Lochte with Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show. (NBC )

Over the weekend, Ryan Lochte celebrated his five Olympic medals the way any red-blooded American male would do: by heading to Las Vegas, slipping into a tiny, star-spangled hot-pink Speedo, and partying alongside Prince Harry.

Lochte's Sin City revelry capped off a week-long promotional blitz by the swimmer and aspiring actor, including a cameo on the CW soap "90210," a stroll down the red carpet at the premiere of "The Expendables 2," a striptease performance for Giuliana Rancic and Joan Rivers on E!'s "Fashion Police" and a visit to "The Tonight Show," where he reiterated his desire to appear on"The Bachelor" or"Dancing With the Stars."

Lochte may be courting the limelight more unabashedly than other members of Team USA, but he's certainly not the only athlete turning to the mechanisms of Hollywood — and reality television in particular — to parlay a moment of Olympic glory into a lucrative showbiz career.

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In recent years, Olympians have flocked to reality TV like moths to a flame: To date, more than a dozen former and current Olympians have appeared on "Dancing With the Stars," and two of them — gymnast Shawn Johnson and short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno — will return to the show's all-star season next month. Last week, gymnast Gabby Douglas paid a visit to "America's Got Talent" and Lochte's archrival, Michael Phelps, announced plans for a reality series on the Golf Channel. Then there's the guy who arguably started it all: Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner, better known to a generation of TV viewers as Kim Kardashian's stepdad than "the World's Greatest Athlete."

For an increasingly image-savvy generation of athletes, a career in reality television has become at least as appealing as an appearance on the front of a Wheaties box. The driving force behind this trend, say former Olympians and sports marketing experts, is the desire — and in many cases, the financial necessity — to extend their time in the spotlight. If it takes endless heart-to-heart conversations with Chris Harrison or getting scolded by Maksim Chmerkovskiy to make that happen, then so be it.

"What you're seeing a lot more of is athletes looking to the future and figuring out what will help them outlast a career in sports," says Lochte's agent, Erika Wright.

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Most Olympians, even groundbreakers like Douglas, have a narrow window of opportunity — a few months, tops — to cash in on their gold medals.

"As much as we'd like to believe that performing well in the Olympics and being the darling of your country means you're going to have a long shelf life, it's just naive," claims Matt Delzell, an executive at the Marketing Arm, an agency that brokers celebrity endorsements on behalf of major brands. "Even another two months of marketability can make an Olympian a lot of money."

Jonny Moseley, a freestyle skier who won a gold medal and charmed viewers with his California-dude demeanor during the 1998 Nagano games, surprised many in his sport when, after the Salt Lake Olympics, he accepted a job hosting MTV's"Real World / Road Rules Challenge." He later competed on the short-lived "Skating With the Stars" and now hosts the reality competition "American Ninja Warrior" on NBC and G4.

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Moseley says even as a teenager, he knew television exposure was key — both as a short-term way to entice sponsors and pay for his expensive equipment, as well as a long-term investment in a second career. Though his move into reality TV drew criticism from some of his rivals — "People were like, 'Oh, Moseley's selling out, dude. He's not hard-core'" — he claims it was necessary. "Knowing that I was in a dangerous sport and anything can happen at any time, I had to make the most of it."

Evan Morgenstein, chief executive of PMG Sports, an agency that represents Olympians Nastia Liukin and Mark Spitz, puts it in more defiant terms. "They're forced to do this nonsense because of the inequitable distribution of wealth," he claims, pointing to the fact that athletes are paid a relatively meager stipend, even though their efforts generate billions of dollars in revenue for the International Olympic Committee.

"They are indentured servants," he says, "and the fat cats at the IOC are ripping them off."

But it's not all about dollars and cents — it's emotional, too, argues two-time Olympic gymnast and Yahoo! Sports analyst Shannon Miller. A stint on a show like "Dancing With the Stars" allows athletes to cope with the inevitable feeling of "what now?" that comes after the Olympics.

"You get over this enormous high of being at the Games," she says. "It's so magical, and then it's like, 'Oh, I have to go back to real life.'"

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